Tom Shellsuit came to Singapore in 2003 and has contributed to Singapore’s music and lifestyle scene like no other. With pioneering outdoor events like the Sunday At The Training Shed series under the Sideshow banner – to the now de-Funk(ed) Pushin’On parties at Blu Jaz Cafe – the DJ and creative director founded and currently manages Kult Kafe and Kult Yard, two establishments that offer alternative experiences in food, drink and music. Nez Senja interviews Tom Shellsuit about his musical experiences and influences, through a Spotify playlist curated by the Scot.
Hi Tom, Hope all is well with you! What is the current state of your musical mind?
Hello Nez. Thanks for having me! Both Kult bars are closed temporarily during the lockdown so I’ve got a bit of extra time to dig into music that I’ve accumulated over the years. Still searching for new sounds of course – got to scratch that itch!
Let’s dive straight into your playlist! You kick off with something from the Beastie Boys with Something’s Got To Give which was on the Check Your Head album from 1992. Tell us, how was living, breathing and DJing music in the year 1992? The Beastie Boys were one of the main icons of counter culture during that era, and were highly visible to the masses, was there a direct relation between DJ culture and counter culture of that time?
I’m a late 70’s child and grew up in the 80’s in a small village in South-West Scotland. The nearest town library had a tape section and I’d be signing out albums based on band names I knew, interesting cover art, but mainly the “Parental Advisory” stickers. Everything got bootlegged on my double tape deck before going back to the library.
Beastie Boys Check Your Head was one of the first albums I bought on CD, I already had Licensed to Ill and Paul’s Boutique thanks to the tape library. I chose this track not because it’s my favourite one on the album, or even my favourite Beastie’s album, but because it’s representative of the way I listened to music: albums – start to finish. Listening to albums opened my mind to other sounds and styles. There were guest artists, funny skits, experimental stuff. De La Soul Is Dead is another example of an album on rotation at the time.
My musical interests were diverse. I listened to all kinds of stuff thanks to the tape library; Bodycount, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Megadeath, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, The Farm, Happy Mondays, Queen, Utah Saints. And there was a lot of diversity in the charts and getting radio play during this era as well; Nirvana, Tribe Called Quest, KLF, De La Soul, Prodigy.
Hanging out listening to music with friends was a bit different (shout out to CMcB, Buck, Russ, Paul, Fifi, Big Neil, Dude and Julie H). We grew up during the tail end of the rave era. There were still plenty of big parties going on and the house parties also reflected that sound. Fabio and Grooverider, Carl Cox, Slipmatt and Lime, Sasha and Digweed, Ratpack – that kind of vibe. It was democratic – a CD or tape would get played according to the group consensus or the whim of the host. New music would be introduced subtly or sometimes suddenly, and subject to the group’s critique.
CDs that didn’t make the cut would get ejected and sometimes ‘lost’. At the end of the night, hip hop, ambient and other styles came into play. Kruder and Dorfmeister, St Germain, Massive Attack, Aphex Twin. Over time, the 6 CD multi-changer changed the game and artists like Goldie, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy became the party music of choice. Around the same time, skater friends introduced me to new hip hop through bootlegged tapes and videos (shoutout to Roddy, Sandy B, Cheesy Paul, and Nelly). Tribe Called Quest, Hieroglyphics, GangStarr, Digable Planets and Wu Tang are a few.
At 17, I moved to Edinburgh to study and I would mess around with an old record player and tape deck. No mixing or anything, I’d just play some ambient or spoken word on one and some beats on the other to see what would happen. I was listening to a lot of Mo’ Wax, DJ Krush and DJ Shadow around this time. I kind of understood the basic principles of how a turntable and mixer setup worked (still no CDJs back then!), and after watching Richie Ruftone and DJ A-1 battle for first place in the Scottish DMC finals I decided to commit and start saving for a proper DJ setup. I worked all summer in a kitchen and split the cost of two Technics 1210’s and a Gemini mixer with a housemate, Ali. We spent all available money on hip hop 12’s and figured out beat matching and basic scratches together.
Pharaoh Sander’s The Creator Has A Master Plan is as majestic as it is free. The one and only Jazz track in your playlist, could this have been an influence by an older collector of music?
Yeah it’s an interesting one for sure. I first heard it hanging out with some friends. I’d heard plenty of jazz before, but nothing so free and esoteric. I can’t go into the details too much but it’s one of the first tracks that introduced me to the potential of an individual track as a journey. It was a real trip..
This led me to dig into the more experimental side of my Dad’s jazz music collection, including Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Dude played 2 saxophones and a flute at the same time!
A classic funk track from 1969 is Cissy Strut by The Meters which has been sampled in hip hop by NWA, Tribe Called Quest and even 2 Live Crew. As a fan and collector of music, did you work your way backwards from hip hop to what they sampled from funk records? Or were funk records in your possession from the beginning?
Hip Hop hooked me, and as I learned more about DJing, sampling and early Hip Hop culture, I started paying more attention to the original source material. The Ultimate Beats & Breaks series played a big part and Cissy Strut is a good example of a track that I could relate to instantly, despite it having been produced more than 20 years earlier. Old was new to me!
Of course Kilo by Ghostface and Raekwon is as dynamic as the rap pairing gets. The track samples Jimmy Van M. & Hieronymous I Weigh With Kilos from 1976. A straight 21st century flip in ’06, probably serving as a street anthem for anybody knowing the real worth of a kilo gram and a day’s worth of hustle. Tell me, before Singapore I bet you have traveled the globe to many cities. What are some experiences and sights of ‘the streets’ could you share with us?
Kilo is a banger! After doing the warm up set for the Raekwon and Ghostface show at Zouk (props to Felix and Koflow for that!), I drunkenly told GF backstage it’s one of my favourite jams and asked if he ever performed it live. He said ‘Uh, yeah, sometimes..’. A world exclusive – you heard it here first.
I have been fortunate to travel and have some memorable musical moments in no particular order or sense:
1) 98 or 99? All day jam with Scottish and Bosnian musicians in Mostar. After arriving, it took two days to find turntables (thank you random Italian hippie in a bus), which I transported across town in a wheel barrow. It wasn’t that long after the war and this jam helped reinforce the importance of music to me as a positive and uniting force.
2) Pushin’On at El Junco in Madrid. 2009 or 2010? The Pushin’On crew did a mini tour which included shows in Barcelona and Madrid and some beach somewhere. El Junco was the best of the tour – a jazz club that was the meeting place for revolutionaries during the Spanish civil war. In true Madrid style we ate at 10pm, the night kicked off at midnight and went till 6am, after which it was time to go to straight to the airport and back to BCN. I woke up in the airport and one of the Ramones was sitting next to me. Can’t be too sure though.
3) 2008 or 2009? Fat Beats in LA. Glad I caught this record store before it closed down a year or two later. Got some Rawkus Records slipmats and a Beatnuts remix EP and some other stuff. Can’t remember the year, still remember the records.. There’s a video online somewhere of their closing party. It was a bad year for record stores closing down.
4) 2009. Drinking San Miguel in the back streets of Barcelona with a beer seller (an illegal immigrant from Pakistan) while he sang love songs to his girlfriend back home – no phone, he was just singing them out there. Haven’t heard anything quite like that since.
5) Arthurs Tavern in East Village, New York 2006. Incredible jazz music in a tiny bar. Possible catalyst for opening my own venue.
6) Every Sunday at the Training Shed. Start to finish.
Some solid UK Hip Hop by Jehst! How was growing in in Scotland and the UK in general? Did UK rave culture ever seep into your perspective of music? How would you define UK Hip Hop, as compared to the originators from state side of the late eighties and nineties?
Had to include some UK Rap! Jehst is one my favourite emcees – his lyrics, delivery and production. From about 95-2000, some friends and I ran a monthly night The Money Shot at the original Bongo Club in Edinburgh (Shout out to Gav, Sam, Foly, Houdin and Jake!). The main room was a 50/50 mix of UK and US Hip Hop and the back room was early D&B and a bit of Techno.
It was a great time – UK rap was already way past the imitation of the US sound, with relevant lyrics, production and regional accents represented. Some of the DJs pushing the art of turntablism then, and now, are from the UK, (Woody, Ruftone, Bunty, Plus One, Mr Thing, Prime Cuts, Tony Vegas to name a few). They featured on a lot of the releases (bring back the scratch chorus!).
Independent labels released records on a regular basis and there was a good network of stores stocking them together with some early online sites (Disorder’s Suspect Packages) for the stuff that didn’t make it over the border. For some Scottish rap from this era, check out Mr Jinx Throughout The Years. I moved to Glasgow 2000/2001 and caught the early days of Numbers and Lucky Me. After that, it was off to Singapore in 2003.
Then a classic Souls Of Mischief with 93 ’Til Infinity. A true testament of timeless music, do you hear any of this timeless quality in contemporary rap and hip hop today?
I think anything that has been made with real feeling has the potential to be timeless, especially if it captures the place where it was made and a feeling or mood – themes like love and heartbreak, social injustice, rebellion, humour, and the need to move your body. Soul, funk and reggae have it in abundance which perhaps fuels the interest and influence of those genres across generations.
I think new music released on labels like Stones Throw have the potential to be timeless. Stones Throw in the 90’s/2000’s was the quintessential independent hip hop label, but they diversified to include a range of artists unified in their creativity, originality and musicality, while still referencing what had come before – hip hop music fundamentals.
Two current artists I think reflect the label’s expansion are Sudan Archives and Vex Ruffin. If you dig back a bit further into the STR archives you can hear one of the first non-rap artists they signed, and still one of my favourites – James Pants. And you want to get deeper into the STR rabbit hole then look for Folerio – You’re So Precious.
The vocal sample that goes ‘..create rap music cause I never dug disco!’ comes from a different era of rap of the 1988 by 4-Ever Fresh’s Urban Sound Surgeon. The album where Bear Witness itself comes from was produced by Dan The Automator with scratching by Qbert, and the style of the album itself is a mix of psychedelia, trip hop, old school hip hop, horror core and electronic music, making this body of work an instant classic.
What do you think of taking snippets of inspiration from various styles and creating something of your own, not for the sake of the cool factor, but purely for the purpose of creativity and giving birth to something that has not been done before?
It’s fun isn’t it? I’ve always liked the cut and paste style since the early days (Steinski etc), through to Coldcut, DJ Yoda mix tapes, Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow’s Steinski tributes. It’s also a good way to sum up a period in time. There’s something educational, fun and creative about it. If it’s done well. Or else it can get a bit Jive Bunny…
NB: please don’t google Jive Bunny. Look for Double D and Steinski instead! There’s an interesting feature on Red Bull Music Academy about some early disco edit pioneers from Montreal called PAJ. They did 2000 tape splices on their PAJ2000 mix. That’s one tape splice per beat – all cut, arranged and pasted together by hand!
I like to compile together genres or sounds that interest me into mixtapes. I’ve uploaded a few on my Mixcloud that cover funk, instrumental hip hop, RnB, 80’s electro, 60’s Singapore vinyl, but my Spine TinglersMix is one of my favourites in terms of flow and theme, and the least listened to interestingly. It’s all about the brass section and there’s a cover of the James Bond 007 theme tune performed by Fanfare Ciocarlia (they did the theme tune to the Borat film). I’ve played sections of this mix (when the time is right) and it kills it.
The funk lives on with Atomic Dog by George Clinton. Tell me what are some memories of watching these classic bands from decades past, live in concert?
NB: I’ve programmed this Spotify playlist as a compilation album and put this track in here to raise the energy a bit before the next track… A few years back at the Esplanade in Singapore, I managed to catch Funkadelic/Parliament. Maybe not be the best venue or decade to catch them, but they definitely brought the funk!
Some other memorable bands I’ve seen live are; Rage Against The Machine, Cypress Hill, Bjork, Portishead, Underworld, Prodigy, Jurassic 5, Souls of Mischief, Beastie Boys, Oddisee, Task Force, Sean Kuti, Roy Ayers, Beck, Robert Glasper, Budos Band, Dharni, Wicked Aura, I am David Sparkle, Fauxe, Mediocre Haircut Crew, Forests, Aya Trio, and Jeremy Ellis.
You dub it out with Java by Augustus Pablo. What does reggae and Jamaican music mean culture to you? What are some contemporary progressions of ‘island music’ of modern day that you follow?
I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of reggae growing up. Soundsystem culture wasn’t really a thing in rural Scotland! The reggae influences in the Fugees second album got me more familiar, and I found some Lee Scratch Perry and King Tubby albums in the tape library which introduced me to dub. But it wasn’t until I bought some Dancehall 7’s while visiting my brother in Toronto that I got properly hooked and started searching out more.
Over the years, and now in Singapore, I had accumulated enough music to be invited to play at the Limehouse carnival party. With no prior knowledge of the carnival sound and not interested in downloading some generic “top 100 dancehall and soca” compilation – I played a mixture of dancehall, reggae, soca, UK garage and funky that I liked – just trying to hit the energy level and vibe which I thought might work in my version of a UK carnival I’ve never been to.
It was a trial by fire but playing there with artists like Masia One and JNR (Matteblacc) and feeling the energy of people during the party gave me more confidence, helped me expand my range and solidified my love of Soca music – the hyperactive rum-drenched calypso offshoot.
Some Shellsuit Soca picks: Terri Lyons – Vibez (Link Up Riddim) Denise Belfon – Jouvert (Limerx Riddim) Kerlz – Stand Up (NMB Riddim) Eclectik – Roboman (Power Soca)
And finally, Tonight’s Da Night by Redman. I love Redman myself – a larger than life voice, with almost comical themes that paint the picture of getting the party started and getting down! Who would have thought not taking yourself too seriously could seriously get you to move your body? As a DJ, that is the purpose of selecting and mixing music yes? To get the listener moving and grooving? Do you approach DJing in this way? Or are there times when a serious and potent message has an equal part to play in the role of a DJ?
Yes, Redman is the man! With Erick Sermon – Hit Squad Productions – one of the best producer/rappers ever (EPMD). Watch him make a beat on Rhythm Roulette on Youtube. And it’s good not to take yourself too seriously. Google the image shellsuit!
As a DJ, my philosophy is pretty simple: whether I’m playing or just hanging out at a party, I want to leave feeling we’ve had a good time together and also learned something new.
Thanks Mr. Shellsuit for your time. It was great talking about music with you!
Thank you Sir. Peace and Love.
All Photos Courtesy Of Sideshow, Kult Kafe & Tom Shellsuit
Check out Tom Shellsuits’s Spotify Playlist:
Listen to Tom Shellsuit’s latest mix of electro funk to boogie to at home on a Saturday night!